Putin Plays the Victim Card
And in the process, he reveals a huge hypocrisy in his case for war on Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin on Wednesday gave his third major speech since the war with Ukraine began, during a meeting concerning “socioeconomic support for the regions.” This address hit all the major points that Russian propaganda has been harping on for weeks: Ukraine is a Western “anti-Russia” project, Ukraine was creating biological weapons with American help, Ukraine did not obey the Minsk agreements and was preparing a genocide, Ukraine was getting ready to join NATO and develop nuclear weapons, etc. Also, in case anyone was worried, Putin assured his listeners that, “The operation is being carried out successfully, in strict conformity with the approved plan.”
The major concern of this speech was the Western sanctions, and if Putin’s demeanor and language are any guide, the sanctions are working. More than in his previous two speeches, this one was in large part an extended whine—mostly connected to the mean things that the West is doing to Russia. Putin is the victim, Russia is the victim. The whole West is ganging up on them. It’s not nice and it is not fair, etc. The emphasis on victimhood by a head of state who is busy bombing children’s theaters in a neighboring poor democracy would be hilarious if this were part of some satirical film, but unfortunately this tripe comes from the real-life leader of a nuclear power.
Putin also cried that social networks and the Western media were being unfair and “stuffing” people with “a huge number of fakes, propaganda forgeries …” These anti-Russian activities show that the “objectivity and independence” of the Western media is just a “myth.” If someone is hyperventilating about victimhood in the 21st century, the analogy the most dramatic victimhood-mongers always reach for is: “It’s just like how Hitler treated the Jews!” Putin can’t help himself either, and when he complains about the “cancellation” of Russia and Russian culture in the West, he said:
In its attempts to “cancel” Russia, the West tore off its mask of decency and began to act crudely showing its true colors. One cannot help but remember the antisemitic Nazi pogroms in Germany in the 1930s, and then pogroms perpetrated by their henchmen in many European countries that joined the Nazi aggression against our country during the Great Patriotic War.
The main target of Putin’s bile in this speech is not the Ukrainians, but the Western elite backing them. This rhetorical targeting of the “elite” allows Putin to extend an invitation to the common people of the West to join him in his whine, encouraging them to blame the increase in the price of food and fuel on the Western elite:
The truth is that the problems faced by millions of people in the West are the result of many years of actions by the ruling elite of your respective countries, their mistakes, and short-sighted policies and ambitions. This elite is not thinking about how to improve the lives of their citizens in Western countries. They are obsessed with their own self-serving interests and superprofits.
This can be seen in the data provided by international organizations, which clearly show that social problems, even in the leading Western countries, have exacerbated in recent years, that inequality and the gap between the rich and the poor is widening, and racial and ethnic conflicts are making themselves felt. The myth of the Western welfare society, the so-called golden billion, is crumbling.
The use of the term “superprofits”—one word in Russian, сверхприбыль—as well as this reference to the “golden billion” should let us know that Putin is not really like your standard American right-wing authoritarian. He is not complaining about “globalist elites” and against “woke capital.” Putin’s rhetoric reveals that while he is not a Marxist, he is deeply Leninist. “Superprofits” is a Marxist-Leninist term that describes the revenues of imperialism, the massive profits that the Western elite gets from extracting the wealth of colonized peoples (which, in Leninist theory, they then use to bribe their own proletariat into rejecting the socialist revolution).
The “golden billion” is a very interesting reference to a contemporary Russian conspiracy theory popularized in the 1990s by the chemist and anti-Western theorist Sergei Kara-Murza. The core of the theory is derived from Lenin’s theory of imperialism:The “developed” countries (which number about 1 billion in population) suck up all the wealth of the world and live high off the hog while the rest of the world starves. According to the “golden billion” theory, the earth is headed to a massive socioeconomic catastrophe. The people of the most developed countries are going to inherit the earth after this massive catastrophe, as they have managed to steal or control the natural resources and the wealth of the rest of the world and can weather the storm.
Putin may not be referring to this specific conspiracy theory, as the phrase “golden billion” is thrown around in Russian political rhetoric to refer in general to the wealthy, developed, Western countries. Putin here is certainly claiming that the “golden billion”—by which he means these advanced Western welfare societies, is finished. This is meant to be a call to the Western common people that their elites have failed them, a call for them to join Putin in his wail of victimhood. High prices at the pump, high prices of food, these are the consequences of sanctions against Russia, which is itself part of a “premeditated, long-term strategy” of the Western elite. The particular excuses to impose sanctions (the annexation of Crimea, invasion of Donbas, 2022’s expanded attack) are just pretexts.
According to Putin’s rhetoric, he hopes that the current economic crisis will lead to a collapse of the global economic system, which would lead to the liberation of the developing countries from the imperialist policies of the Western elite:
It is obvious that current events are drawing a line under the global dominance of Western countries both in politics and in economics. Moreover, they call into question the economic model that in recent decades has been imposed on developing countries, and indeed on the whole world.
Putin also shows that he is not just appropriating the talking points of the crybaby-right in the West in his treatment of Europe. (Though, one might be forgiven for thinking he is just ripping off the Western crybaby-right, based on several parts in the rest of the speech.) Among right-wingers in the United States, Europeans are often portrayed as lazy freeloaders, coasting on the security guarantees of the United States and neglecting their own militaries even while they constantly gripe about the U.S. and U.S. foreign policy. According to Putin, the Europeans are free riders but are instead the cloying vassals of a U.S. empire:
Yes, many countries in the world have long resigned themselves to living with their backs bent, obsequiously accepting all the decisions of their sovereign, gazing obsequiously into his eyes. This is how many countries live. Unfortunately, also in Europe.
Putin’s attack against exploitative Western elites and his accusation about American (or Anglo-Saxon or “Western”) imperialism, even in Europe, are fascinating mirror images of the actual system that Putin has built in Russia. Putin sucks the natural resources out from under Russians, sells it to the “golden billion” and then keeps the lion’s share of the profits for himself and his select elite, perhaps the “golden 10,000” of Russia. As for imperialism, he is currently waging an aggressive war to reduce a sovereign Ukraine to a Russian vassal, to turn it into something like Belarus or Abkhazia, a pliant servant of the Kremlin empire that gazes obsequiously into Putin’s eyes.
After Putin extended Leninist lamentation of victimhood and self-justification, he shifted gears and turned to the actual task of the meeting: discussing regional development. The Soviet-style droning in the transcript about “overcoming all obstacles” and “fulfilling all orders” to achieve economic success that issued from the mouths of stuffy bureaucrats and officials after Putin finished was quite a contrast from Putin’s earlier theatrical ravings about plots against Russia. There was one exception: Chechnyan dictator Ramzan Kadirov made a brief appearance, where he likened the sanctions against Russia to the siege of Leningrad by the Nazis and accused the West of supporting terrorism: “We defeated international terrorism in the Chechen Republic, which was supported by the West. The same West today supports these satans in Ukraine.”
Kadyrov’s father, by the way, was the first Chechen leader to call for an international jihad against Russia during the first Chechen war. This was before the Russians paid off his clan to murder the other Chechens and become the local Russian vassal. While Ramzan is not a friend of al-Qaeda or “wahhabist” terrorism, as he usually defines it, his thugs regularly terrorize his opponents, including by violent attacks abroad, and while he is the designated ruler of one of Russia’s poorest regions, he is a wealthy man, recently seen flaunting Prada “combat boots.” By the way, Kadyrov might be headed to Ukraine right now to help his Chechen goons press the attack.
For a duo who can’t stop harping on about Western “hypocrisy,” Putin and Kadyrov are both interesting head cases for hypocrisy on a massive scale: bawling about victimhood even while these men swimming in ill-gotten wealth engage in real imperialism and actual terrorism.